Human Resources

48: Stratified Systems Theory — Elliott Jaques

Elliott Jaques

Gillian Stamp

As bureaucracies became more prevalent as a feature of organizations post-WWII, questions surfaced as to how they could be improved. Was there an optimal way to design them? What was the best role of individual members within a bureaucracy? Could individuals be developed to handle higher level roles?

Among those asking such questions was Elliott Jaques, co-founder of the Tavistock Institute and later the author of the renowned book Requisite Organization that combined social theories with theories of organization. As a scientific approach to organizational design, the “stratified systems theory” of requisite organization sought to optimize the hierarchical structure based on the time-span of decisions at echelon. Then, using methods for measuring individual capabilities and capacity for decision making, members could be assigned posts within the organization based on best fit. Stratified systems theory (SST) established a common schema for using time-span that could be applied to any organization.

Stratified systems theory found a home in the U.S. Army due to its immediate applicability in the Army’s large, complex hierarchical structures during the Cold War. The seven strata prescribed in the Theory were found to be analogous with various echelons in combat organizations, and the individual capabilities mirrored the duties and requirements of officers at particular ranks from lieutenant (lowest stratum or Stratum I) to general (highest or Stratum VII). For this reason, and because the report is in the public domain, we opted to read Jaques’ Army Research Institute Report Level and Type of Capability in Relation to Executive Organization, co-authored with Brunel University colleague Gillian Stamp in 1991. The report gives both a good summary of the theory and a thorough explication of its potential use in practice.

But as a scientific approach to organization, SST has been heavily criticized and largely shunned. Why, and whether or not this is fair is among the many topics we tackle in this episode.

You may also download the audio files here: Part 1 | Part 2 |  Part 3

Read With Us:

Jaques, E. & Stamp, G. (1991). Level and Type of Capability in Relation to Executive Organization. Alexandria, Virginia: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Public domain.

To Learn More:

Kleiner, A. (2001). Elliott Jaques Levels With YouStrategy + Business, 22

Jaques, E. (1997). Requisite Organization: Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century. London: Gower.

Jacobs, T. O., & Jaques, E. (1990). Military executive leadership. In Clark, K. E. & Clark, M.. B. (Eds.) Measures of leadership (pp. 281-295). Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

________ (1991). Executive leadership. In Gal, R. & Mangelsdorff, A. D. (Eds.) The handbook of military psychology (pp. 431-448). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

36: The Human Capital Hoax – Employment in the Gig Economy

Episode 36 represents a momentary break from older seminal readings to a very recent essay covering a timely topic – the negative effects of ‘Uberization’ and the gig economy on the economic and social fabric.

Peter Fleming

While the text and the phenomena are quite recent, the author analyzes these matters by re-reading a classic approach in economics and tracing its ‘dark’ influence on contemporary dynamics. The podcasters, therefore, were eager to sink their teeth into this piece as it shows how much understanding fundamental discussions might help us to make sense of current issues — an argument we explored in Episode 40, covering the Symposium on the Sharing/Gig Economy!

The Independent Social Research Foundation recently held an essay contest with the winners being published in Organization Studies journal. The runner-up was Peter Fleming’s “The Human Capital Hoax: Work, Debt, and Insecurity in the Era of Uberization,” a treatise and pointed critique of the emergence, development, implementation, and negative effects of Human Capital Theory.

Fleming’s essay traced the beginnings and promise of Human Capital Theory in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of a desire to endow workers with ‘responsible autonomy.’ The argument was that if workers were granted more freedom and authority to do their best work for the company, they would perform better. Human Capital Theory (HCT) emerged to capture how workers behaving individualistically could be viewed as capital separate from the organization itself, much like an organization’s equipment or facilities. The allure for firms is efficiency, and for workers is flexibility. But as Fleming warns, there is a ‘dark side’ to this idea, which is becoming manifest in reduced job satisfaction, poor work-life balance, deep debt for education, and intensified management of individual contracts.

What questions are unanswered? What should policymakers consider in addressing the problems Fleming raises? How does society try to rebuild the social fabric that appears to be crumbling in industrialized societies?

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Also read a response to our podcast by one of our listeners — Reflections on The Human Capital Hoax by Benoit Gautier
Read with us:

Fleming, P. (2017). The human capital hoax: Work, debt, and insecurity in the era of uberization. Organization Studies 38(5), 691-709.

To know more:

Bregiannis, F., Bruurmijn, W. J. M., Calon, E., and Duran Ortega, M. A. (2017). Workers in the gig economy: Identification of practical problems and possible solutions. Paper submitted for the Geneva Challenge 2017.

Mumby, D. K., Thomas, R., Marti, I., and Seidl, D. (in press). Resistance redux. Organization Studies.

Also, the article has natural links to several previous episodes.

  • Episode 18 on the Gig Economy and Algorithmic Management with Arianna Tassinari, which discusses fundamental concepts of the gig economy.
  • Episode 1 on Taylor and Scientific Managementgiven that the ‘uberization’ described by Fleming represent at the same time a departure and a re-emergence of the bad sides of Tayloristic approaches.
  • Episode 34 on Trist and Bamforth’s article on organizational changein the coal mining industry; while these authors shows how industrialization/bureaucratization upset social cohesion and Fleming posits that the gig economy is undoing worker’s solidarities and creating ‘individualized’ work arrangements.


17: Tokenism – Rosabeth Moss Kanter

With Special Guest Deborah Brewis

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of business at Harvard Business School. She is known for research on gender, strategy, leadership and innovation. Her book “Men and Women of the Corporation” (1977), arguably one of her most important work, is considered a seminal study on gender in the workplace and one of the richest case studies of a large industrial corporation in the field. It won the C. Wright Mills Award, fueled a stream of research on tokenism and the negative consequences of inequality and blocked opportunities for minorities, and had great impact on policymaking on affirmative action and related strategies.

In this episode, we read Kanter’s paper “Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life: Skewed Sex Ratios and Responses to Token Women” (1977) which features as a chapter in her classic book. In this article, Kanter explores how interactions within a group or an organization are affected by the different numbers of people from distinct social types. In particular, she focuses on groups with skewed gender ratios: a high proportion of men and a small number of women – the tokens. The study is based on observations and interviews with sales team which had recently started to incorporate women in its workforce and shows how structural factors stifled their potential.

Kanter documents that because women were numerically few, they: 

  1. experienced heightened visibility creating performance pressures,
  2. were isolated by the majority who exaggerated their differences in the face of women entry in the group, and
  3. were expected to act within pre-defined gender roles.

Kanter richly unravels the mechanisms underpinning these gender dynamics and the responses of these (token) women to such situations. The paper debunks a number of assumptions from previous literature on the behavior of women at work. It posits that hypotheses on the “fear of success of women” or “women-prejudice-against-women” have origins on structural conditions in which women are embedded in, not gender traits in themselves. The paper also makes a strong case for affirmative action and numerical balance as an instrument for gender equality. While many of these claims have been replicated in further research, gender scholars have also problematized some of its assumptions, insisting that gender is a matter of power and not only quantity; and that balancing numbers as a strategy for change may fall short in the face of resistance and the reproduction of inequality.

The challenges of gender integration, the theoretical underpinnings of Kanter’s framework and the relevance of the concept of tokenism in contemporary research and practice are among the themes covered in this Episode. 

Join us as we talk about these issues, and many more, together with our very special guest, Dr. Deborah Brewis!

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Read with us:

Kanter, R. M. (1977). Some effects of proportions on group life: Skewed sex ratios and responses to token womenAmerican Journal of Sociology, 965-990.

To Learn More:

Yoder, J. D. (1991). Rethinking tokenism: Looking beyond numbers. Gender & Society5(2), 178-192.

Zimmer, L. (1988). Tokenism and women in the workplace: The limits of gender-neutral theory. Social Problems35(1), 64-77.

14: Simply Managing, by Henry Mintzberg

Henry Mintzberg

Henry Mintzberg is an internationally renowned academic and a prolific business and management author. He is currently the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Much of Henry’s work is concerned with developing new approaches to management education and reflecting on the actual managerial practices and organization of work. He has published around 170 articles, 17 books (all available for reference on his website), and holds a great number of significant honours and awards. Henry will be well-known to virtually any management scholar, not least on account of his 1973 seminal work – The Nature of Managerial Work –  which began a decades-long research programme that dispelled a view of managers as scientifically rational controllers and coordinators.

The book we analyzed in this episode, Simply Managing (2013), is an updated study of managers conducted by Henry Mintzberg based on observing 29 managers at all levels of organizations across a range of industries and organizational structures: business, government, healthcare, and pluralistic organizations such as museums and NGO’s. It is condensed version of his earlier book – Managing, which was published in 2009. Both books address management as it is actually practiced, which Henry found to be quite different from how management scholars write about it. Simply Managing is designed to be of greatest use to practitioners, with an entertaining style and lots of boldface type to emphasize key points clearly.

In Chapter 1 of the book, Mintzberg used his observations to debunk the conventional notions of what management is and is not. For all the changes in the professional world of management practice, he concluded that the nature of management has not changed substantially in the 40 years between the publication of The Nature of Managerial Work and Simply Managing. Chapter 2 is a review of myths of managing, which Henry labels as folklore. Chapter 3 presents a model of managing with a thorough explanation. Chapter 4 criticizes views of management that only look at one of or a few of its its many varieties at a time as if the others could be ignored or were less important. Chapter 5, the most important chapter of the book according to Henry, identifies the paradoxes that are inherent in the practice of management. The final chapter, Chapter 6, grants amnesty to imperfect managers doing the best they can despite their flaws. It describes themes of effective management in context, because that is where the real work of management happens according to Mintzberg.

The book is thought provoking and comprehensive, which made for an interesting discussion with the author. Listen to the podcast and decide for yourself. 

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Also click here to read our own Ralph Soule’s review of Simply Managing.
Read with us:

Mintzberg, H. (2013). Simply Managing: What Managers do – and Can do BetterFinancial Times

Also available for Kindle and as an audio book!